What's A Non-Programmer To Do?

How I keep myself busy.

This article was published on October 28, 2009.
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I wrote a comment for Hacker News back in August in response to a guy's question about what a non-programmer should do in a startup. My response received 164 up votes and is the tenth most popular comment of all time. In this article I add some depth to most of my previous twenty bullet points.

What's A Non-Programmer To Do?

Product Development & Road Map

As the business guy, you've got to look at everything with a big picture mentality. Think macro, not micro. I've got to think about what we can do today that will bring us to where we want to be in six months, one year, two years, maybe further along. You don't want to spend all your time thinking too far in advance (dreaming, in other words), but you definitely need to have some sort of road map.

Luckily, everyone on our three-person team thinks about things in a different way. Dave and Jason are meticulously focused on the present — they're doing the daily design and development on the new Carbonmade release — whereas I'm looking toward the post-release phase. Dave often says that he can't let himself think about the future or he wouldn't be able to focus on the present development. This isn't to say that I'm not involved with the day-to-day on our new product release, or that Dave and Jason aren't involved in our road map; but we all need our focus to be on different areas.

So while Dave and Jason are concentrated on getting our new release to market, I can take a more macro approach and focus on what's next. We'll then come together, go over my plans, and decide jointly where we want to go from there.

Managing Cash Flow & Budgeting Bills

I've told a lot of entrepreneurs that I think managing cash flow is one of the most important challenges. Sadly, this is something you learn over time and with experience. It's really instinct — knowing whether $500 is better spent, for example, on marketing or development. It can't really be taught.

At Carbonmade, I routinely break down our expenses in Excel and create quarterly budgets based on our projected revenue, payroll, merchant fees, and expenses. I don't project beyond three months, because that would be irrelevant for us. I work with Jason to estimate our fluctuating server costs and other expenses.

It's my job to give Dave the thumbs up on a new MacBookPro purchase or respond to Jason's request for a better DNS solution. (Side note: We're about to make the switch to DynDNS.) I've got to make sure we don't overspend and that we plan our budget accordingly. For example, upgrading our servers may be better put off until next month, and I need to make that decision.

Since I handle our budget and cash flow, paying our bills is a natural progression from that. While we use AmEx for most purchases, especially the big ones like server expenses, I write all of our checks — from payroll to marketing expenses to office rent — when a credit card doesn't make sense. I keep the checkbook for the company and make sure that every bill is accounted for.

Customer Service

Providing excellent customer service singlehandedly transformed Carbonmade from a side project into a profitable company. I can confidently say that, as pro-active customer response is the most significant “update” to our product we've released to date. When Carbonmade began, we were still a full-time consulting company, and we didn't have time to respond to our customers. As the company began to grow, I stepped in and made it my initiative to handle all incoming e-mails right away and add a human touch.

The first thing I did was go back and respond to a backlog of about six months of e-mail, apologizing for our silence and explaining why we didn't respond. In the same e-mail I would ask if anyone still needed help. Most people were very understanding when I explained our situation. From that point on, I never leave an e-mail unanswered when I go to sleep and I make sure to answer any new e-mails that accumulated while I was sleeping before I shower and brush my teeth in the morning. Throughout the day I answer all e-mail as soon as it comes or at least as soon as I can get to it.

Now, you shouldn't do what we did and not answer e-mails the first six months. You should be on top of this from day one. If I e-mail a new startup and don't get a response in a timely fashion, it's really a turn-off. It's not a lot of work and should be a priority, especially early on.

Investors

Probably because we are a self-funded company that's never taken financing, we get a lot of investors reaching out to us. While we're not opposed to taking financing at some point, we're in the unique position of not needing it right away, if ever. And that's really attractive to outside investors!

The e-mails from investors come in weekly, and while I haven't taken any meetings to date, I do take the time to respond in every case and to answer any questions they have. We're focused on pushing out our new version, so I tell any investor who e-mails me that while we're interested in meeting at some point — if that's what we decide to do — we're pushing any meetings back until after our new release.

And if we do decide to meet somebody, I'll be the guy there pitching our company, listening to what they have to say and answering any questions. It's going to be a lot of work and I'm not necessarily looking forward to the distraction when it happens. While we're not opposed to financing, we want to see how our revenue projects after our new product is released.

Incoming E-Mail

We don't just get customer service-related e-mails, we also receive lots of partnership requests, e-mails from investors, sales-related e-mails, marketing opportunities, etc., and I handle all of these. Timeliness matters here too, but it's generally not as important as with customer service e-mails. I try to get back to everyone before the end of the day, but these e-mails usually take longer to think through and write. With customer support, I've seen every question a thousand times (literally), so that's a lot easier for me to do quickly.

The trick to answering these e-mails is not to close the door on any opportunity. Keep everything open to discussion. Be friendly and don't shoot anyone down. If you're presented with an “opportunity” that's totally ridiculous, then you just politely decline, but there's no reason to be judgmental.

Social Networking (Facebook, Twitter, etc.)

I wrote an article on how I use Twitter for business entitled Let's Be Friends two weeks ago, so the details are in there for you to read if you're interested. Social networking has definitely impacted our business and allows our customers to reach us outside of e-mail. It's the kind of experience that feels far more personal and allows us to publicize our brand in a way that blogging and answering e-mails do not.

Marketing (AdWords, Text Links, Banners, etc.)

Marketing has definitely taken over my life the past few weeks and will continue to do so for the rest of 2009. Carbonmade barely spent a dollar on advertising until a few weeks ago when I began experimenting with Google's AdWords and banner advertising on various websites. I'm in the process of building out our brand.

While I'm waiting until the next version of Carbonmade ships to go all out on marketing, I'm beginning to test the waters with various ads and see what performs best. I have learned for example that: You need to run Google AdWords for at least 30 days for their algorithm to work to your advantage. Most people don't know that your cost-per-click will decrease as Google AdWords learns more about your account. So you should get started early with a budget of at least $5/day to begin feeding data into your account.

Accounting

I know a lot of startups spend very little time on their own accounting. Although we could just hand over our statements for every quarter to our amazing accounting firm, I prefer to input everything into Excel myself. (I don't like any of the recent accounting programs out there. There are just too many unneeded features.)

Every Monday I take a few hours to input all of our expenses and revenue from the previous week into an Excel template I created a few years back. This way I can easily do our budgeting and cash flow. People think I'm crazy to bother with this, but I think they're crazy not to. I have a clear picture of every dollar and cent going in and out of our company from day to day, and this really helps me plan our road map.

Legal

Working with lawyers is not an inborn talent. If you don't know what your needs are in advance, you can spend a lot of money needlessly. If you don't do your preparation and carefully outline everything you think you need before going into a meeting, you'll lose time, which is in turn billable hours.

Luckily, Carbonmade is my 5th LLC, so I have a lot of experience dealing with lawyers. I don't go down side alleys and don't need a lot of explanation from our lawyers, because I've done it all before. For those of you who lack this experience, it's just a necessary business growing pain, and I promise you it gets easier.

One of the main things you'll learn is that there are many legal things that you can take care of yourself, hence don't need to get your lawyer involved. I'm fortunate that my law firm Hodgson Russ taught me early on “how to use a lawyer,” explaining what's worth calling them about and what I can do myself.

But you can't operate without your lawyers. First and foremost you need to set up an Operating Agreement between you and your partners. This is often overlooked early on, but it is the single most important document you can have your lawyers draft. I mean good, experienced lawyers: I nearly got burned in one of my early startups as a result of having a Yale law school student draft my Operating Agreement rather than a real law firm.

Next, there will be lots of miscellaneous paperwork: filing your company with the state, writing Terms of Service, perfecting your Privacy Policy, having your lawyer look over key contracts, writing up templates for contractors and personnel, submitting your trademark, etc. Whenever you think you've got a breather from writing checks to your lawyer, another stray item turns up. But these are necessary evils.

Networking Events

One of the major responsibilities of the “business guy” (or girl) is to get the word out about your company by meeting people in your community. This is especially important early on. Usually you can coast after you've met the right people because they'll introduce you to new people and you won't have to be quite as active discovering a community. It's kind of like the investor thing: once you have a good core group of friends around you, people will want to be introduced to you rather than the other way around.

I moved to New York City in September, 2006, not knowing a soul in the entrepreneurial and tech communities. For an entire year and a half I attended as many events as I could, including the NY Tech Meetup, which was a lot more tight-knit back in the day, and any other event I could find on GarysGuide.

It took about six months to become confident in myself and my pitch, and to figure out how to best interact with the people I wanted to know. It then took another six months to a year to find my way into what you might call the inner circle. Now I know everyone in NYC, or if I don't know them I know at least one person who does.

It's a time thing and something that your business guy needs to go to work on early. It would be nice to think that we could all be lone wolves, superior to the occasional indignities of networking, but the fact is, most of us need to reach as many important people as we can.

Blogging

While I don't update our blog as often as I'd like to, it gets quite a lot of traffic — especially when we post an interview with a top designer. Companies handle blogs differently. Some write a lot about the nuts and bolts of their current operations and others simply post company updates. I take the second approach with Carbonmade, because I don't have time to do anything more with the blog at this point. I do send out interviews every so often, so that makes up for it somewhat.

I won't linger over the importance of blogging. It's fairly obvious these days that writing blog posts gets people talking about your company and brings them to your website. Keep in mind, though, that there are now more and more avenues for achieving these goals.

Market Research

You have to stay up-to-date with what your competitors are doing. Carbonmade has a lot of them. Make sure you sign up for all of their services, keep their RSS feeds in your blog, and subscribe to all of their newsletters. It's easy work, honestly, because mainly you just want to keep tabs on them. If you're doing a good job yourself you won't have to worry about spoiling your day feeling envious or resentful.

Since Carbonmade was the first online portfolio around — and is now the largest as of Monday, October 19, 2009 — we've got a nice head start over our competition. We've never had to look to others for ideas. We generate plenty of those on our own. However, it's important to be able — as quickly as possible — to spot anything your competitors are doing that's attracting customers away from you. Is there a small feature or a way they do something that's giving them an edge somehow? You've got to find those.

Writing The Copy

While Dave wrote the initial copy for all of Carbonmade, I've since gone in and added a Frequently Asked Questions, taken over the blogging, re-written our About area, and put in other stuff. It's important to keep the site fresh and add to your support documentation as things change. Even though Carbonmade is three years old, I still find myself adding a new question every few weeks.

You don't have to be an expert writer to keep your startup's copy updated and fresh. Just write clean sentences that make sense and aren't too wordy. One of my rules is not to over-think anything. Just write it how you'd say it and then go back and revise later. Some of our FAQs are one-line answers and that's fine if one line does the trick.

Dave and I still collaborate on the bigger pieces, as he's an excellent writer. Recently, Carbonmade was featured as a case study by Microsoft and Dave and I worked together to piece together the final copy. This was after Jason and I were phone interviewed by Microsoft for the rough copy they put together.

Advertising Requests

While Carbonmade doesn't accept advertising any more, there was about a one-year period during 2008 where we sold a small ad on the right side of our portfolio listing for supplemental income. We've never put advertisements on the actual portfolio pages, but our search seemed appropriate enough.

We'd get inquiries from lots of different brands looking to buy out this space, so I'd keep a simple Excel file organized with their name, length of the campaign, and the price. Since we only sold one ad at a time, it wasn't difficult to keep track of. The difficult bit was sorting out the real advertisers from the pretenders. Nearly half of all the inquiries were a total waste of time.

Merchants

If you accept credit cards or PayPal for your web service, you know the headache of dealing with merchants. It's probably the least satisfying part of the job. We're fortunate to have worked with Chase Paymentech since our beginning, which has been a breath of fresh air for me after having worked with Authorize.net and others.

What I do in this area is to handle all the communication between our company and our merchants. There was a lot of paperwork when we switched LLC names last year, and then last month we changed our business address, so I had to update that and get things squared away there. I also get monthly statements from them that I read over, input into Excel, and file away.

With PayPal, it's mainly logging in, generating monthly statements and making daily withdrawals into our checking account. PayPal doesn't have an option to do this automatically, so it's just an annoying task that I have to do daily so that our money doesn't pile up in our PayPal account. Their savings account is rubbish. We use ING Direct for that.

Phone Calls: Incoming and Outgoing

While we chose early on not to provide phone support for our customers due to the time drain, our phone number appears on credit card statements. I'll get about a phone call a week from a customer who goes to my cell phone routed through Google Voice. It's typically a parent asking about the charge, me asking whether they have a son or daughter who's an artist, them saying they do and then being pleased that we're helping their kid show off their work.

I also like the idea of CEO Office Hours that Jason Fried introduced over at 37signals. It's definitely something I'd like to do at some point in Carbonmade's future. It's just tough to lock myself into a set of hours each week to take calls.

I find myself having to place phone calls on behalf of our company for the most random things. Just the other day I was talking with our health insurance provider to change some routing numbers. It's random, but I'm on the phone a few times a week.

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